Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Today Show Coverage of ECMWF Forecasts and other Sandy Links

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Yesterday a film crew came and interviewed scientists from the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), the place where I am currently a visiting scientist. Above is the link and below is part of the transcript.

“Thousands of miles from the storm here in England, that group of scientists were making cutting-edge calculations last week providing an early warning of the damage Sandy would do. It was a storm warning that must have seemed incredible to some. And because it was so early helped millions of Americans prepare for the worst. One week ago today, last Wednesday, Al [Roker] relayed a dire forecast on “Today” scientists in Europe predicting Sandy would hit the east coast.


On the right is the prediction from the American model, on the left ECMWF. The European Center pretty much nailed it from incredibly far in advance. This prompted MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel to write a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why America Has Fallen Behind the World in Storm Forecasting”

The early call came from the European Weather Center in England, 250 staff posting 150 million weather observations every day but have seen nothing like this: A hurricane making a left hook into the Northeast. [To meteorologist] When you first saw this, what was your reaction?

Alan Thorpe: “Obviously we were concerned. Even eight days ahead we could see the tropical cyclone developing. To assess the odds of Sandy hitting the east coast, their super computer had created 51 forecasts; all had one outcome. All took the storm north and then towards the eastern seaboard.”


This is the map room on the second floor of ECMWF. In the middle is Anna Ghelli, a world authority on forecast verification.

Reporter: By the weekend, the American and European models had converged. Without these forecasts the human cost might have been far worse. [To meteorologist] Essentially you and the other 250 scientists working here probably saved lives?

Meteorologist: I think it certainly motivates all the people who work here”


Alan Thorpe (left) and reporter (right) in front of “The Big Board”.

For more updates on the storm, easily the biggest coverage is over at the Daily Mail, lots of large photos and videos. There is a gallery of damage on Coney Island. Early estimates of damage are around $15 Billion, but some as high as $50 Billion- Hurricane Katrina was about $100 Billion.


Caskets floating from a grave in Maryland

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gotham City Flickers Out (Hurricane Sandy)


The skyline of Manhattan is dark.

"This will be one for the record books," said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at ConEdison. "This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history."

APTOPIX Superstorm Sandy

The site of Ground Zero has been flooded with sea water.

On Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange was to be closed again - the first time it's been closed for two consecutive days due to weather since 1888, when a blizzard struck the city.


Twitter’s photo of a PATH station flooding through an elevator shaft.

NBC New York has some video of Queens ablaze that looks like a post apocalyptic scene in the Terminator movies. I’m sure when dawn breaks in New York City, the media is going to go completely apeshit.

An out-of-control six-alarm blaze is ravaging the Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens and has destroyed more than 50 homes, the FDNY tweeted early Tuesd. FDNY Queens dispatcher directing units to fires, telling them they'll PASS other fires en route! 


Atlantic City boardwalk in pieces.

More on twitter: BREAKING: The water level at the Battery in #NYC has reached 11.25 feet, surpassing the all-time record of 11.2 feet set in 1821.


Not exactly sure where that number came from, but here’s the tide level at the Battery, NY. The blue line is the normal tides, the green line is what was added because of the storm. The red line is the two added together. For the southern tip of Manhattan the storm surge and the high tide’s timing couldn’t have been better (or worse depending on your perspective).


A gallery of photos of the storm from space.


Sandbags and plywood at Lenox rail terminal


Some people went whole hog when preparing for the storm. In this photo I can see a baseball bat, disco ball, and a Samurai sword.

NPR has fewer updates but of bigger stories, whereas WNYC is doing fast updates (WNYC also has an interactive webpage to show current flooding – drawing on National Weather Service forecasts). The Daily News is a good source for rapid updates. The weather channel has a good photo feed.

The USGS has a tide mapper that is running a little slow but their regular page for river gages is doing alright (at the moment New Jersey is not reporting any data). Eventually I’d like to write a story about the emergency gauges that the USGS installed, but the press releases are here and here.

Google Crisis Response has a Sandy webpage.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A City Without People (Hurricane Sandy)

When I came in to work this morning, the “Big Board” at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts had switched from its typical view of Europe to cover the US. It’s clear something major is happening.

Some of the models keep the track out to sea, but most all the other guidance has the storm doing a right hook to the coast. The storm has been described as “Meteorologically Mind-Boggling”.


A good amount of storm surge will pile up on the coast to the north of the storm. The National Hurricane Center is a good source for storm surge info. StormSurge

The light blue along the New Jersey coast is where there’s a 50% of getting more than 6 feet of storm surge. Once the storm hits land, it is expected to remain for a few days, meaning storm force winds for 48+ hours. The NWS issued warnings including phrases such as “… if you don’t survive”. Additionally

“One of the meteorologists on staff even provided his contact information, urging those who think the storm is “overhyped” to call and yell at him on Friday if it ends up not being as bad as they think. But, he said, even as they yell at him, he’ll be happy they are safe.”

To see the mandatory evacuation zones of New York, go to this interactive webpage


And the public transit system is suspended. This has caused some eerie scenes in places like Grand Central Station. The rest of these pictures are from the Metropolitan Transit Authority photo stream


Workers are protecting critical infrastructure, such as putting inflatable dams at the entrances to the railways:

8134049846_09aae16ce4_c 8134022017_d164131205_c


They are also removing sensitive expensive equipment, such as motor switches for the railway.


I have to think of how it feels to be the person issuing the forecasts that are setting all of this in motion. What did that person eat for breakfast this morning? The decision to dismantle hardware and evacuate it is a huge cost to protect. Inflatable dams at subway inlets cost money to buy and set up. That said, it would be dumb to have the inflatable dam and to have not used it at a time like this. 

I also wonder how they know their protection is going to hold? Who monitors the structure as the water comes up on it, to hold back any leaks? I imagine the workers could stand there and argue about “yeah, that’s not going to hold, water’s going to come in there”. How would you settle a disagreement like that if you’ve never had practice and don’t know how to test it? Clearly people have some bad ideas about what’s effective as flood defenses, such as this buzzfeed roundup from the last New York flood


A roll of towels is used to block flood waters from entering a store.

Stay dry out there!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Frankenstorm’s River Forecasts

This coming week, Hurricane Sandy could merge with a snow-bearing cold front to cause major losses along the East Coast of the US. Occurring at high tide, the financial district of Manhattan could be flooded. This trifecta of two storms colliding at high tide has been dubbed the “Frankenstorm”. Roger Pielke Jr discusses the projected losses as being somewhere in the $1-$10 billion range, depending on where the storm hits and how strong it is.


NASA image of Sandy

Bill Hooke has an excellent summary of where to go for information and he quotes the Capitol Weather Gang as saying the scenarios for Washington DC are

(A) worst case, – direct hit (on Washington), severe impacts (30% chance);

(B) indirect hit, major impacts (N.B. this scenario also implies a direct hit, only north of here, say around New York or New Jersey) (45% chance);

(C) glancing blow, minor impacts (but Massachusetts or Maine might still be hit) (20% chance);

(D) out to sea, few impacts (5% chance).

The best source of information on flooding is the National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Page. These are the official “single valued” forecasts that go a relatively short time into the future.


The forecast for the Hudson River upstream of New York City. The left side is what’s happened in the past, the right side is projected into the future. The oscillations are the ocean tides.


Here’s another station northeast of Philadelphia, southwest of Trenton

The official suite of products does have some information about the chance of flooding reaching different levels. These are the Ensemble Streamflow Prediction (ESP) products like so


Chance of flooding at Langhorne, PA.

The problem with that ESP forecast is that it doesn’t include anything specific about a rainfall forecast, it just assumes a wide range of future rainfall scenarios are possible.

That’s obviously not the case now because a hurricane is bearing down on the region. Now the National Weather Service is experimenting with linking the river forecasting models up to various weather forecasting models (in a process called MMEFS). Three weather models give a range of possibilities of what could happen. Here are the expected areas of flooding from one model (GEFS):


Purplish dots mean more severe flooding. Square dots mean higher chance of that happening.

Here are some more charts of Langhorne:


The possibilities of flows 13 days into the future. Each line is a possible future.


Like the ESP plot, except when you consider the specific weather forecast for the next 13 days. Earlier there was about a 5% chance of a big flood, this now says there’s an over 85% chance. Some of the worst flood scenarios are eye-poppingly high (homes under ~15 feet of water)

Naturally, these are experimental forecasts and are dependent very much on where the hurricane actually goes. These experimental products are also not reviewed and approved by a human hydrologist, they are straight from the model, hands-off. In contrast, the official products are inspected and adjusted as necessary by a professional hydrologist who has local knowledge of ongoing conditions.

The amazing thing, however, is that every piece of information in this post was freely available on the Internet (from my room in England). Nearly everywhere else that I know of, the river forecasts are only accessible to a select group of people, such as emergency services personnel. They control access through special logins and such. If you have some thoughts on public access to this kind of information, leave a note in the comments section!

Order Your Doomsday Device Before the End of the World

Some believe that the end of the world is coming 21 December 2012 (only 54 days left). If you would like to survive the Doomsday, a Shanghai entrepreneur would like to sell you an impenetrable six ton metal bubble for $800,000. Built to 5-star standards, three people can live in it up to a year (other sources say a few weeks).
The above events happened in August. The new story is about how 21 people have put in orders for the device.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

10 Tips to Being a Better Cook and Forecaster

You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients--Julia Child

The year before I started my travels I made it a resolution to make a perfect french macaron. I tried every week making dozens of them and failed. They are the most technically difficult of all baked goods, they are what Chefs use when they battle one other. I thought I got close but it wasn’t until I made it to France that I realized how far I still had to go. It is said you don’t “make macarons” you “try to sneak past the macaron gatekeeper”.


The perfect macaron. What usually goes wrong is that their crusts crack or they don’t develop symmetrical feet.

Although I walked away defeated, I learned much about cooking and found many parallels with making forecasts and doing hydrologic modeling (there is even an excellent website “Cooking for Engineers”). I wrote about this when I was a forecaster in the US:

Generating a water supply forecast is much like preparing a meal. The freshest, highest quality ingredients (input data) are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a winning dish. A variety of utensils, sharp knifes, and pots and pans of all sizes (forecast tools), all help the chef (hydrologist) transform the ingredients. While presentation (visualization) can increase a dish’s appeal and make a great first impression, ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the tasting (forecast accuracy). There is no last minute spice (except perhaps a vivid color bar and slick product design) that can mask over the results of poor preparation or ingredients.

Just imagine the challenge of acquisition of data, preparation of guidance, and timely distribution of product. A network of NRCS data collection personnel throughout the Western US gather and prepare the ingredients and send them to the kitchen at the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Oregon. Immediately, four hydrologists set upon the data, each preparing the equivalent of 150-200 different dishes simultaneously, every one of which has to be just right in its own way. These are then handed off to the NRCS state water supply specialists who have the task of whisking the plates out of the chaos of the kitchen and placing them before thousands of water users. If the product doesn’t satisfy or has gone cold by the time it reaches the decision-maker (e.g., a major storm has dramatically changed basin conditions since the data was first collected), some users don’t hesitate in sending it back to the kitchen with their regards.


A going away cake for one of my employees

Then last year I wrote a modeling “cookbook” that included these 10 commandments

1 Skim the recipe at the start
2 Plan your meals
3 Taste test at every step
4 Clean as you go
5 Use high quality ingredients
6 Be careful when using substitutions
7 Ingredient preparation determines the success of all that follows
8 Know your equipment, have the right tools
9 Master the way things should be done before experimenting
10 Balance taste with presentation

Here’s an explanation of each

1 Skim the recipe at the start

The temptation with any new recipe is to want to dive in and start mixing things up. However, it helps to at least skim all of the instructions to give a feel for what is to come; most importantly, it lessens the chance that you will come to a critical step and lack some essential ingredient. Clearly, it takes experience to understand what is meant by each instruction. Similarly, do not just open up any modeling computer application and start clicking away, assuming that it is all intuitive.

2 Plan your meals

Cooking, like modeling, has many steps, some of which are time consuming and some of which can be done in parallel with others. Think of what you have to start first and what needs done last. Anything that can wait, should wait. However, also anticipate how the rest of the process will be affected if one part is delayed or has to be done over.

3 Taste test at every step

A common mistake for modelers is to start the computer doing a long model run only to find out hours or days later that there was some mistake in the code. Start with small tasks and verify that each part is working. Reworking failed long jobs is the epitome of waste and should be avoided at all costs. Monitor early results and do not hesitate to cancel bad model runs in process. That said, realize that the cookie will not taste just like the dough, so learn to recognize what good dough tastes like.


“Ils sont magnifiques!” A tower of french macarons at the Paris airport.

4 Clean as you go

It is good to keep a tidy and organized work area. It is more effective to clean many small messes than one giant mess and you don’t want past messes contaminating your batch. Always operate from the assumption that someone else will have to go into your workspace and understand what you have done. As a modeler, name your files and directories informatively (i.e. not “junk1”,”junk2”), and delete or archive non-essential files. Write down where all your various datasets came from and how they were modified. Nearly identical files or folders in several locations (e.g. on several computers) are a recipe for disaster. Keep notes as you go instead of waiting until the end to try and recall what you did. Documenting is like exercising; do not set too ambitious goals (i.e. document every minutiae) only to overwork yourself and give up a few weeks later. Be consistent and practical and it will become easy and routine as you get more practice.

5 Use high quality ingredients

In most recipes, preparation of ingredients is the most important and time consuming part. Similarly, 60-90% of your effort should occur before the hydrologic model is run for the first time. It almost goes without saying that you would not want rotten and spoiled goods in your dish, but it is surprising how much bad data finds its way into attempted setup of models. Too often people do the modeling equivalent of making the dish, seeing if the result is bad and then trying to guess what ingredient had gone off.

6 Ingredient preparation determines the success of all that follows

I’ve heard people say “Garbage In, Garbage Out” to describe how bad input data will yield bad results. There is also a variant “Garbage In, Gospel Out” to show how much faith we have in model outputs. People also say that “75% of the effort in finishing your dissertation is getting, reformatting, and cleaning up data. About 20% of it is trying to get all your committee members in one room at the same time for your defense.” I am a firm believer that you should spend about twice as much time as you think you need checking all the input data and fixing those problems before going any further.

tom cookies

Eagerly awaiting the next batch out of the oven. I was likely in tears minutes later.

7 Be careful when using substitutions

Clearly, one would never substitute flour for sugar because both are fine white powders. But can sweetener be substituted for sugar? Artificial sweetener can be used in tea and coffee but not for baking. Many other metaphors abound; when can pork substitute for beef? Should diesel be substituted for gasoline (for explosions, perhaps, but not for car fuel)?

Some hydrologic substitutions are appropriate and others are not. Perhaps most importantly, the forcing data (e.g. rainfall) for model setup must be consistent with what is going to be used to drive the model in realtime. For example, you can’t have lots of missing data when you make a forecast. Similarly, weather forecasts or radar rainfall datasets may not have the same “normal” as was used to set up your hydrologic model. Even if these new rainfall fields are better representations of the true rainfall field than what was used to calibrate the hydrologic model, the hydrologic model may not appreciate this. There is a perennial debate among hydrologists about this issue (is it better to be “right” or “consistent”?). My opinion- forecasting may not the best time to try and teach the model a “hard lesson about reality” that it has not been prepared for.

8 Know your equipment, have the right tools

It is not necessary to understand a stove’s innards to cook on it, but it is clearly beneficial to understand in a general sense what all the controls are intended to do. This is even true for functions in which the default is commonly used. Software packages often have a zillion options and maybe you won’t use all of them, but invest some time to learn what they are trying to achieve (otherwise you might end up doing something by hand that could already be automated). For cooking, I am a very strong believer in thermometers because ovens are almost never at their advertised temperature. Would you have a chemistry lab without thermometers?

9 Master the way things should be done before experimenting

It is common for hydrologists to develop their own style when setting up models, perhaps using a series of steps they prefer to go through or set of diagnostics they like to calculate. However, it is best achieve a mastery of the basics before going off and developing new ways of doing things. Learn what good scrambled eggs taste like before charging off with your own technique or falling into a default routine.

2012-08-22 22.30.40mars

A deep fried Mars bar I had in Scotland. A local delicacy, it tastes about the same as it looks.

10 Balance taste with presentation

Diners partly judge a meal based on first impressions. These impressions include presentation, aroma and the initial taste. A poor first impression can be enough to completely turn a diner off a dish. At the same time, cooks can resort to any number of tricks to make a dish appealing, such as serving small portions of off-cuts, ornately decorated with tweezed sprouts. Packing a dish with salt and butter improves the taste but makes it unhealthy. Furthermore, why call a dish “Fingerling mousseline with celery shavings, infused with a sherry-mustard vinaigrette and an emulsion de oeuf and huile de cuisson” when it is only potato salad?

Finally, do not be mystified by hydrologic models or mesmerized by technology. Start simple and build complexity as needed. Use plain language to describe products and forecasting procedures. This will help with transparency and confidence building, assisting the user in making healthy decisions to their long-term benefit. Experiment and be daring but also recognize that unfortunately some customers will pounce on imperfections in early products. Resist the temptation to oversell the quality of something, but instead find a group of users eager to try out new things and who will give constructive feedback.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Italian Scientists Sentenced to Jail for Failed Earthquake Risk Assessment

For all my years of writing on the web, I’ve always wanted to post a drudge siren for breaking news. Finally here it is:


The BBC and the Daily Mail have some coverage on the news side of it. There’s also the Guardian. If you want deeper coverage, Nature has an excellent page.

UPDATE: As usual Roger Pielke Jr has some astute analysis. He quotes another source as saying "prosecutors didn't charge commission members with failing to predict the earthquake but with conducting a hasty, superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete, falsely reassuring findings to the public." Basically (I think?) the commission quickly dismissed a dissenting voice (who turned out to be right).

From the Guardian:

An Italian judge sent shockwaves through the scientific world on Monday when he sentenced seven of the country's leading experts on natural disasters to six years each for giving false assurances before the earthquake that hit the city of L'Aquila in 2009.

…The prosecution, which brought charges of multiple manslaughter, maintained that lives could have been saved had people not been persuaded by the assurances to remain in the area.

The sentences handed out by judge Marco Billi were higher than those demanded by the prosecution, which had asked for the accused to be given four years each. The judge also imposed lifetime bans from holding public office and ordered the defendants to pay compensation of €7.8m (£6.4m).

Marcello Petrelli, a lawyer for one of the experts, called the outcome of the trial "astounding and incomprehensible". In Italy, convictions are not considered definitive until after an appeal, so it is unlikely that any of the defendants will go to jail immediately.

But the sentences are expected to cause uproar among scientists worldwide. Several international bodies had warned that a guilty verdict could deter scientists from advising governments in future

BBC’s Jonathan Amos has some good analysis:

The decision to prosecute some of Italy's leading geophysicists drew condemnation from around the world. The scholarly bodies said it had been beyond anyone to predict exactly what would happen in L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

But the authorities who pursued the seven defendants stressed that the case was never about the power of prediction - it was about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being misleadingly reassuring about the dangers that faced their city.

Nonetheless, the verdicts will come as a shock to all researchers in Italy whose expertise lies in the field of assessing natural hazards. Their pronouncements will be scrutinised as never before, and their fear will be that they too could find themselves embroiled in legal action over statements that are inherently uncertain.

Thanks Mike Cranston for the tip!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is Man Bad for Nature?

This week I’m enjoying reading a classic publication on education in hydrology. The introduction included portraits of the authors, which is unusual for a journal article. All of them are titans in the field. Indeed, this is the first time I had seen a picture of Nash, one of the first people to call himself a “hydrologist”. His name is also on the “Nash-Sutcliffe Score”, the most widely used measure of how different a hydrologic simulation (or forecast) is from what actually happened.


Nash writes (in 1990):

It is fashionable to regard man's involvement in nature as almost always bad. It is true that ignorance (often spurred on by greed) is leading to progressive damage to the natural environment and that we require as much scientific understanding as possible of the relevant processes in order to diagnose our mistakes and put them right. On a more positive note, however, man's ability to control his environment, to improve it and to make it more enjoyable, and indeed more productive and profitable, depends just as centrally on putting our understanding of hydrological processes on as sound a scientific basis as we can manage.

The University of British Columbia Forest Department has a list of other great quotes from famous hydrologists. Another good quote is this one from Morton in 1983:

“The current state of the art is that of a car spinning its wheels while stuck in a swamp, with frenetic computer applications making the problem worse by devaluing human judgment and experience.”

Nash J.E., P.S. Eagleson, J.R. Phillip, and W.H. van der Molen, 1990, The education of hydrologists (Report of the IAHS-UNESCO Panel), Hydrological Sciences Journal, 35(b):12.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Volcano Fever (part 4): A Night on the Mountain

(This is part four of a series on a visit to Virunga Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see Africa’s most active volcano, Mt Nyiragongo. We pick up the story just as the lava lake first came into view. Read parts one and two and three).

When Nature gets truly stunning, I tend to put away the camera. I’ve tried to photograph things like the Grand Canyon, but always find myself thinking that a picture could never capture the enormity of being there. Nyiragongo is one of those colossal landscapes. That said, National Geographic comes close to what it was actually like:


The lava lake at the center of the volcano. From National Geographic.

The lake was 700 feet across—one of the largest in the world—with a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic surface. Black plates were cut by jagged cracks of orange, violently shifting and roiling. One moment the crust took the form of a shattered windshield, then it coalesced into a jigsaw puzzle, then a ragged map of the world. The lake roared like a jet plane taking off and emitted a thick white plume of dozens of deadly gases. "The whole periodic table is churning in there," Sims said.

Even from the rim the scientists could feel the heat. The 1800°F lava exploded from the lake in electric orange geysers, several every minute—25 feet high, 50 feet, 100 feet, bursting into evanescent arches of liquid rock morphing from orange to black in midair as they cooled. The lake seemed to breathe, expanding and contracting, rising and falling, its surface level changing several feet in a matter of minutes, spectacular and terrifying at once.


The ever-changing kaleidoscope of lava (see a time lapse video here). From National Geographic.

In that article, a scientist climbed down into the volcano to the shore of the lava lake to collect a sample:

As he approached the spatter cone, the lava crunched like eggshells beneath his feet. The rim was 40 feet high, the wall nearly vertical, requiring rock-climbing skills to ascend. He started up, stretching for handholds and foot placements, drenched in sweat inside the suit. When he was ten feet from the top, spotters described to him over the radio the level of the lava, where it was exploding, where it was spilling over. Conditions changed by the minute. He was five feet away. Then three. Suddenly his foot slipped, and he smelled burning rubber. Looking down, he saw his shoe melting out from under him.

But he kept going. He peeked over the top, eye to eye with the boiling lava. This was beyond science. This was personal, the culmination of a lifetime of exploration and adventure and tireless curiosity. Over the radio the emotion in his voice was palpable. "Amazing. Incredible. I'll never see anything like this again."

CarstenPetersVolcano1National Geographic’s original caption: A member of the expedition walks on the caldera's cooled lava floor, turned red by the reflected glow of the lake. "Down here you feel the volcano," says photographer Carsten Peter. "It's a low-frequency rumbling that pulses through your body—like being inside a giant subwoofer."

Throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, we stood at the rim of the volcano, entranced by the ever changing lava. As the wind shifted direction, we would either be treated to breathtaking views or enveloped with skin-tingling noxious gases.


My photo from the rim.

Much of the time at the rim was spent in humbled silence, with the occasional “I’m not even sure what to say here. Can I just say “wow” again?” There were discussions about who was getting too close to the edge and that, yes, some tourists did die recently by falling in.


We were forced off the rim when the view was obscured by smoke or the wind was too cold. I was in the minority when I suggested that building a fire was the last thing we should do (otherwise our instincts would be to want to stay by the fire and not do anything else- True? Please comment!). We cooked our dinner over the campfire and tried to find ways to dry our clothes while staying warm. I shared a bottle of “Safari Cane” (250 proof) with our porters and don’t remember much after that. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dear Forecasters, Cheer Up or We’ll Sue

The British Met Office’s forecasts for rain are apparently keeping visitors away from a tourist attraction. The owners are threatening to sue unless the forecasts get sunnier.

It is hard to tell from the article what exactly the problem is. It may be that there’s too large of an area lumped together, that it’s wet in one place but the whole region is painted with a rainy forecast. There could also be a time issue, e.g. it rains 10 minutes, but is sunny the rest of the day. There also could be a fundamental forecast skill issue, e.g. when they say 80% chance of rain today, it only rains on 20% of days.

 The Independent gives some quotes from local users:

“The Met Office seems to come up with such pessimistic forecasts predicting chances of rain when we're enjoying sunshine. We've had a lot rain - that's why it's nice and green. But it's important for the tourist industry that when we do have sunshine we need to be shouting about it rather than saying there might be some chance of rain. The Met Office forecasters need to realise that everything they say has an impact on whether people go on holiday or go for a day out."…

"People just hear the word rain and that puts them off going somewhere for the day. There's a difference between that goes on for two or three hours and rain that lasts ten minutes in a shower and then passes through."

"It is already causing holiday-makers to stay away,” she said. “Just a few days ago we were hearing that all caravan parks in the West Country were on flood alert, and this simply wasn't the case.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Volcano Fever (part 2): From Uganda to the Congo

(Read part 1 of this series here. My friend Kelly and I made an impromptu trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park to see Africa’s most dangerous volcano).

At sunrise Kelly and I left Rwanda headed for the Uganda border. We were trying to cross into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but were having to go this roundabout route because we were unable to secure a visa. Our fixer was getting tired of our peppering him with questions about all the things that could go wrong.

“No problem, no problem.”

Some part of us thought we were blowing it all out of proportion. But another part remembered that this was an active war zone, and that that must count for something.

Our risk assessment of the situation swung from one extreme to the other. Surely we were doomed, our fixer was going to dump us off and we would be snatched up by bandits within minutes. An hour later we thought we were magic, that bad things only happened to other people.


Surely we would die instantly if we got near this… or be able to walk across it without getting hurt. (Photo from National Geographic)

Much of my work involves understanding how to make decisions under uncertainty. Kelly was nearly ten years younger than me and so I told myself that I was going to keep her from being reckless. However, she was also with the military and had a few of her own crazy stories. She was secretive about her work, often describing herself only as “an engineer”.

Part way through the morning I turned on the recorder and started to narrate. I joked that this was just in case they found our bodies and wanted to reconstruct the record of what happened. Much of what followed comes directly the transcriptions:

Get Thee to the Reverend

(tape begins)

Tom: “Ok so we’re in Kisoro, Uganda at the Virunga hotel.” I was inside dropping off our backpacks because we were only taking the bare minimum into the Congo. The morning began on a surreal note when Kelly was accosted by a religious fanatic.

Kelly, upset, interrupted: “That lady won’t stop talking to me. It was really confusing and they were all laughing and kept telling me she was crazy but then she kept poking my face.”

Tom: “Poking your face?”

Kelly: “Only a couple of times, but she kept asking me if I had seen the Reverend Laviv (sp?), the preacher.”

Tom: “Is this the lady here?”

Kelly: “Oh no, she’s coming-”

A thin but otherwise normal-looking 30-40 year old Ugandan woman approached.

Tom greeted her: “Hello! How are you? (off microphone talking, unintelligible) Sorry, you are asking if we are dying of “the cancer of the sex?” (more inaudible unintelligible reply)

Tom asked: “So… what should we do?”

She swayed close to microphone and rambled (audibly but still unintelligibly): “What we should do? Yes, you me and the rest of the town to be kind, to have compassion. Because of the priss (?) of non-nongella of Noah (?), the sex, you are dying, yes. Come to the rest of the Rhine (?), because of my freshman dine (?).”

A pregnant silence followed. The question marks continued to float around us.

Tom: “Right… Ok thanks!… Merci beaucoup.” (end of tape) Already I had forgotten that Uganda’s colonial language was English, French was spoken in DRC and Rwanda.

The tape started again in a moving car, driver and guide laughing. Tom: “(sighing) I wasn’t quite expecting to hear about “the cancer of the sex” this morning. Usually I don’t hear about that until (checks watch) after 7 am…. Did you understand anything she was saying?”

Kelly: “I heard “compassion” and “Qbert” and “my river”, but “cancer of the sex” was a standout.”

Sneaky Pictures

The taped ended and continued after some driving.

Tom: “Right, in front of us we have a truck completely chock-a-block with riot guards in body armor.”

Kelly: “Who are these soldiers on the truck?” Some were standing, others hanging off the sides.

Driver: “These are the policemen, they are deploying them to various places to work.”

Kelly: “That would be an awfully cool picture.”

Tom: “(laughing) Yeah NO… no pictures of the police.”

The car went quiet as Kelly steadied her camera lens next to the driver’s headrest. The driver maneuvered to get closer to the truck. He asked “Are you good at taking sneaky pictures?”

Kelly: “…I’m the best.” (shudder sounds)


Crossing Over Borders

Shortly before we crossed from Uganda into the DRC, we picked up the guard and gave him a ride to work. When we first got there, a giant crowd of people was waiting to cross the border. We got escorted to the front of the line and passed everyone standing silently for a flag-raising ceremony. We handed our passports and money to the guard as he went inside.


This is the last we’d see pavement for a while

We saw many men in many kinds of uniform. I wondered if some people showed up in uniform for fun? Perhaps they made their own uniforms and hoped to be offered a border guard job someday.

When they finished the ceremony and rang the opening bell madness erupted and everyone started walking across the first border through a narrow gate. There were people with bicycles, carts, large sacks of goods and so on. There were elderly men and women doubled over from weight of the firewood they carried on their heads.

congo8 Kelly jumped for joy at the border


I jumped and got stuck. Someone had to come get me down.

I asked to go in the guards’ latrine because I have an ongoing experiment to find the worst toilet in the world. This one wasn’t so bad, a simple but clean hole in the floor. It was locked and out behind the main office. There, the guards were literally doing some “back door” business- three guards were hustling down a smuggler who was trying to bring goods across the border. There was money passing between the smuggler and the guards and they were threatening him “either you’re going to give us some money or we’re going to take your stuff”.


The latrine at the border

On the other side of the border we met a new driver in a more rugged vehicle. Within minutes we reached “the end of the road” (according to Google Maps) and came to a gate that was closed. Our fixer got out and opened the gate and we passed through to the rutted dirt road beyond.

Kaindo and Shako Go Off the Map

The difference between Uganda and the DRC was stark, even over such short distances. DRC was decidedly wetter and greener, full of oversized banana trees. It was the kind of place you could dig a hole, go make a sandwich and by the time you returned it would’ve grown back.


We briefly stopped at a river crossing where a woman was washing her clothes. We were told we had to rush because we were getting late. We crashed into pothole after pothole at full speed; “My favorite is when the bump is so hard that the windshield wipers go on”.   Soon the tape started again…

Tom: “(laughing) Any more narration? Ok, so we just blew out a tire on a dirt road an hour away from nowhere (pause) Are we getting out?” (tape ends)

Within a minute of breaking down, three armed guards (Park rangers? Military? Paramilitary?) on patrol walked down the road and assisted us. The tire was shredded and needed replacing. The car was jacked up and tire removed. Then the jack broke and the car collapsed to the ground in a big crash. We lifted it out of the mud and tried to put it on a stack of rocks. Unsuccessful.


The military waved down a passing van but it still drove through. A second overcrowded vehicle stopped and provided a new jack. 


A Samaritan got covered head to toe in mud scrambling under the car to make sure it was stable. If you look closely, you can see the stack of rocks under the car on the left.


A creepy bug wandered by.

The soldiers laughed and shared stories and cigarettes with us. We showed each other how to do different handshakes. When we asked their names they said their English names (e.g. Robert, Louis, etc). We asked for their African names… Would give us African names? The leader called Kelly “Kaindo”. From the way the other guards laughed, I had to imagine the translation was “beautiful woman”, or some military variant.

I was named “Shako”. When asked why he picked that name he said Shako was his brother who died.


A minute after starting up again we passed the van that did not stop for us earlier. The others now had a flat tire. Kelly remarked “That is Karma for you”. Then she discovered her new camera was suddenly no longer working. That is why I don’t ever say things like “That is Karma for you”.

The lush rainforest abruptly gave way to rocky grassland as the volcano came into view.